Israeli Black Panthers, Moroccan Jews and their social movement against discrimination

In the 1970s, second generation Jewish immigrants of Middle Eastern and North African descent created a social movement to protest against discrimination. The movement was inspired by African American formation Black Panthers and was headed by Morocco-born activists.

A demonstration of teh Israeli Black Panther movement in the 1970s in Israel. / DR
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When Moroccan Jews immigrated to Israel in 1940s, they were promised a better life. Hundreds of them left the Kingdom to start a new life in the country. Declassified documents revealed that North African Jews faced discrimination once in Israel.

The Israeli authorities treated Jewish immigrants from North Africa and the Middle East differently during the establishment of the Hebrew state. «The housing projects meant for immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa were given to ‘white’ immigrants», the documents revealed.

Discrimination against Mizhari and Sephardic Jews continued for years in the European-dominated nation. «This was notably salient in African and Asian immigrants being placed in transition camps for up to a decade while Europeans would often be provided preferred housing in developed urban areas», read «Rise of the Israeli Black Panther Party».

Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews were also absent from the political and decision-making scene, higher levels of public service and higher education.

Inspired by an African American formation 

But this situation, although it lasted for decades, had to change. Inspired by African American Black Panther Party (BPP), a Black Power political organization founded in California by college students Bobby Seale (Chairman) and Huey P. Newton in October 1966, a social movement was born.

A group of Sephardic Jews of Moroccan descent founded the Israeli protest movement in 1971. The social movement built within Jerusalem’s poorest neighborhoods «Musrara», was meant to «confront social exclusion from the promises of Israeli citizenship», Alex Lubin wrote in «Black Panther Palestine».

Named Black Panther, or Israeli Black Panther, it was  the only way for second generation Jewish immigrants, mainly those who came from the Middle East and North Africa, to work towards social justice.

«These individuals were predominantly young, Jewish men of Moroccan, Algerian, or Iranian origin, among others», Black Past wrote.

Sa’adia Marciano, born in Oujda, Morocco in 1950, and Charlie Biton, born in Casablanca, along with four other Moroccan-Jewish youth living in the poor Moroccan Jewish section of Jerusalem, «started meeting to discuss North African Jews’ experiences of joblessness, police beatings, housing and education discrimination, and exclusion from government political offices and positions».

«They used the Panthers’ well-recognized name to make the government take this group seriously, and to draw national attention to the fact that Israeli discrimination against them was similar to the experiences of African Americans», the same source recalled.

Pressuring the Israeli government

Israel’s Black Panthers had precise tactics, including «increased subsidies towards slum neighborhoods, welfare payments, and free schooling from the age of four through college».

«Initial demonstrations were focused in Jerusalem, later spreading to Tel Aviv and Haifa. These demonstrations were sparsely populated with minor support from the left-wing Matzpen party», Black Past reported.

Indeed, Israeli Black Panthers held their first demonstration on March 3, 1971 in Jerusalem. The movement made headlines in Israel and became one of the main concerns of government officials.

By April of the same year, Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meier agreed to meet members of the movement, after its members started a hunger strike at the Wailing Wall.

«Because Meir knew that the U.S. Black Panthers repeatedly denounced Israeli oppression of Palestinian Arabs, she feared the IBPP would form an alliance with Palestinians», Black Past wrote.

To find a solution to their threats, she appointed a commission to study «Youth in Distress» and found $22.9 million to fund services for Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews. One of their largest demonstrations was the «Night of the Panther» on May 18, 1971, which brought together 4,000 demonstrators.

Two years after its creation, the Black Panther movement became a political party. Casablanca-born Biton, its founder, was elected to the Israel parliament in 1977, where he served until 1992. The party dissolved in 1977 and its legacy gave a voice to Middle Eastern and North African Jews in Israel.

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